On July 25, 2012, Nick Balenger was an almost-17-year-old high school pitcher, the ace for Virginia state champion Lake Braddock Bruins. He was enjoying a vacation in Hawaii with his family by taking a swim with his father.
And then everything changed for him the moment he dove into a wave, misjudged the depth of the water and hit his head on the shallow bottom.
He was paralyzed.
He has been in a wheelchair ever since.
On June 19, 2013 — less than a year later — Balenger did what he had promised himself he would do, but what many weren’t sure he would be able to do ever again, much less a year later: He walked across the stage at his high school graduation to get his diploma.
The stage was about 50 feet, and he was using a walker to get across it. He used a cane to get down the steps.
Balenger was looking at his feet during the walk, so he couldn’t see his classmates giving him a standing ovation or the tears streaming down the faces of many in attendance, but he heard the roar.
“I almost got blown over by everybody just screaming, but it was awesome,” Balenger told WUSA news.
When the accident happened initially, Balenger dislocated his C4 and C5 vertebrae. He had no movement below his chest. The doctors in the Maui hospital were able to get his spine realigned without doing more damage, and they fused his vertebrae in an emergency procedure.
He had some movement, at times involuntary, immediately following the surgery, but he was far from being fully mobile again. But Balenger is committed to getting back to full health, no matter how grueling the rehab process is.
Balenger’s work ethic has inspired his fellow classmates and former teammates since the accident happened. It was barely three months after the accident that he was able to stand unassisted at a football game in front of his friends and family.
His team has needed the inspiration, too. Lake Braddock has had plenty of other injuries as well — none as serious as Balenger’s, obviously, but their trainer said she’d never seen anything like it.
They managed to overcome all that to come just a game short of a chance to repeat as state champs. Lake Braddock’s Thomas Rogers will pitch for North Carolina next year, and he overcame offseason Tommy John surgery to get a win in the Virginia state semifinals.
Their head coach even tore his Achilles playing pickup basketball last year.
Though it couldn’t have been easy for him, Balenger has spent the season in the dugout in his wheelchair, cheering his teammates on.
“It’s good to have him around,” head coach Jody Rutherford told Washington Post. “The kids kind of look at everything he’s gone through and everything else seems to be that much easier.”
His spinal cord is not completely severed, and doctors tell him that 95 percent recovery is possible. He’s going to keep working for 100 percent recovery, of course. And who are any of us to tell him that’s not possible?